Searching for the Vikings

Saturday, September 2 - Day 32: Nanortalik, Greenland

I don’t even know where to start. Today has been phenomenal. It started when we looked out the balcony glass door and saw a little, tiny town, perched on the rocks, surrounded by water, rocks, mountains, and ice, with a completely blue sky. The sun hadn’t risen over the mountains, so the town was in shadow, but the mountains behind it weren’t.

Nanortalik is the tenth largest town in Greenland, with a population around 1300. Obviously, there are not many big cities in Greenland. The name Nanortalik is supposed to mean “The Place with Polar Bears”. We were assured that there are no polar bears this time of year. That’s very good. It looked, from the boat like a few houses, and a few factory buildings (probably something to do with fishing), and little else except rocks. We assumed that we would spend about an hour ashore taking a few pictures. Boy were we wrong.

There was no line for the tenders, and we arrived on shore at about 9:00. It was cold and windy, but not too bad. The town has buildings painted in different bright colors, which we had learned is the fashion in Greenland. We walked along the main road (I find it difficult to call it a street). There were several buildings that looked abandoned, or at least boarded up, including a coffee shop and a small hotel. Some houses looked well maintained, others looked worn and in need of repair. Qaqortoq, with its modern pub/cafe and its modern, clean hotel and it’s Rock music venue was much more prosperous, even though it isn’t very far away.

The scenery surrounding the town is, once again, unreal. Rock, lots of rock. The mountains are very sharp and craggy and are pure rock. There isn’t a tree for many, many miles. The only vegetation is a little bit of moss, or lichen clinging desperately to the rocks, and an occasional stubborn patch of wildflowers.

Believe it or not, this tiny, struggling town has two supermarkets, a tourist information center/souvenir shop, an open-air museum, a hotel, an ATM, a hospital, a police station, streetlights, cars, and other things that we seem to think mean civilization. There were residents out and about, although not many. I really do think that many of them stay home when the cruise ships are there. Oh, yes, there were not one, but two cruise ships in tiny Nanortalik. Ours and the Seabourne Quest, a smaller ship with only about 400 passengers. We walked along to one end, where there was a hotel with a sign that read Hotel”. No other information, such as a name, was needed. I noticed another weird thing about the town. This is a very small town, and the residents must know it very, very well, yet there were street signs everywhere, very legible ones. I don’t believe that they were for the tourists because the street names were in Greenlandic and were therefore unpronounceable and impossible to differentiate or remember. Weird.

We walked back to the “center” of town and Donnie suggested we go into the supermarket. You would be amazed. A good sized supermarket, with a bakery and fresh baked goods, but it was more like a Walmart. They had TV sets, stationary, gas grills, clothing, and a lot of food. It was better than some of our supermarkets back home. It was a Danish chain, and many of the items had Danish writing on them, but some were Greenlandic. You could tell by the Q’s. Donnie saw a display of postcards and was about to spend an hour or two selecting the ones to buy when a fellow Rotterdammer told her they were cheaper in the Tourist Information Office/Souvenir store across the street.

So I followed Donnie across the street and we attempted to get into the Tourist Information building. I say attempted because there was a line to get in. The door to the building was very narrow and led to a little vestibule which led to another narrow door, so with people trying to get in and people trying to get out, it was congested and there were lines going both ways. Inside it was pretty crowded too. I looked around for a few minutes and then told Donnie I’d meet her outside. I found a park bench (yes, tiny little Nanortalik had park benches) and sat down and waited for her. It only seemed like years until she came out.

We were directly opposite what I will call the “plaza”. It was the open area in the middle of town, so that name applies, I guess. It wasn’t concrete, or tile, or stone, or asphalt. It was dirt, with the supermarket on one side and some building with a covered wooden walkway on the other. The supermarket had set up some little tables to sell cheap T-shirts and other stuff, along with some pastries and coffee, and they had also set up some plastic tables and chairs, so we grabbed a table so Donnie could write her postcards while I sat. During the time that Donnie wrote a million words or so on each postcard (I can’t imagine how she fits them all on that little piece of cardboard), I was people watching. Who was I watching? The residents, or natives, watching us, the tourists. It was funny, a bunch of the natives must enjoy coming to the area and sitting on the wooden walkway and just watching all the tourists. There were some women, with some children, and an occasional whole family.

These people are basically Inuit (which we used to call Eskimo), but they prefer the term Greenlandic. Their faces look Asian, but darker. They do not walk around in sealskin clothing carrying harpoons. They walk around in jackets, sweatshirts, jeans and sneakers. They are everyday normal people, who wheeled their kids around in strollers and have cars and shop in supermarkets and buy Star Wars Yoda figures in the supermarket for their kids. And yet they live in one of the most isolated, inhospitable places in the world. Astounding. We did see two young kids walking along dressed in winter snow outfits, even though it had gotten fairly warm, but one of them was carrying his big, stuffed Winnie-the-Pooh.

A number of the locals went by, going shopping in the supermarket. Several came out eating a hot dog, except that instead of the bun being sliced lengthwise, like all the hot dog buns I have ever seen, this one had a hole down the middle with the dog stuffed into it. Somebody later told us that they have some kind of machine that makes the hole and stuffs the dog into it. Donnie didn’t seem too agreeable when I suggested we try two. So, no Greenland hot dogs, on this trip at least. I liked the Icelandic one I had. I have had Swedish ones too. Maybe I could develop this into some kind of itinerary and convince Donnie to… no, that probably wont work.

Donnie found a mailbox and mailed her postcards. She probably needed extra postage because they were heavy with all that ink. I’m guessing that they’ll arrive in a year or two. We then started walking toward the other end of town, which was supposed to have the old church and the open-air museum. This part of town was prettier, but probably because this had the tourist stuff. We even saw a house which was pretty normal looking, but way up on the apex of the roof were two young boys who had climbed up there to watch all the tourists. Boys are the same everywhere.

We took lots of pictures and then came to an area with a bunch of older looking buildings. Outside was a barrier. There was a older native gentleman, who only knew a few words of English, selling tickets to the open-air museum. He was very friendly and, in his few words of English was saying flattering things about all the women that he met. We bought two tickets for $5 each, feeling not-at-all ripped off because the town needed every dollar it could get.

The open-air museum, which I had assumed would just be a few of the older buildings, was a big surprise. Yes, it had older buildings, but they were well maintained, and inside had some very nice exhibits which was very unexpected for such a small place. Some of them showed objects from their previous use. One was a bakery/brewery and still had some very old machinery used for those purposes. Another held some quite strange objects, all of wood, including big barrels. The most unusual: a whale blubber press! Guess what the big barrels were for. Still another had an extensive collection of rocks, which Greenland has in no small measure. Another had a mixed collection of very elaborate ship models, carved whalebone figures, and old-fashioned clothing and costumes, all very well displayed. The museum was fun and worth every penny we paid. Unfortunately, we had chosen to go there last, and the last ship tender was at 1:30, so we didn’t get to spend as much time in the museum as we would have wanted.

Holland America, similarly to the other cruise lines, does something pleasing at all the ports. At the end of the gangway, or at the tender dock they set up a little canopy and a table with some refreshments on it. There are usually big containers with spigots and some paper cups. The containers have ice water, lemonade, and in the colder places, hot chocolate. This time, as we approached the tender dock, there were four of the town’s kids among the waiting passengers, very interested in the containers and the paper cups. One, a little girl of about eight or so was curious, but when the young woman crew member offered to give her something to drink, the little girl was too shy and just walked away. The three little boys, about the same age were less shy. The crew member gave one a cup of lemonade. He tasted it and grimaced and shook his head and said something in Greenlandic. Then the next boy did the same thing. I don’t believe, given the extensive contents of the local supermarket, that they had never tasted lemonade before, but maybe it was too tart for them. Cute though.

In all, we spent four hours in Nanortalik enjoying the sunshine, even though it was cold part of the time when the wind picked up. It was another revelation seeing how these people live, and, of course, the ones we met were all very nice and friendly. A great day. Now we say goodbye to Nanortalik and also Greenland. I won’t say, as I have for other ports, that I would like to live in Greenland, but I will say that it was the experience of a lifetime to have gone there, twice.

As we sailed out, I was up in the Crow’s Nest adding to this unforgettable piece of fine literature, and Donnie was in our cabin, resting a little. While I was up there, looking out of the big wraparound windows, I realized, to my shame, that I was no longer impressed by the icebergs as we passed them. Now, granted, these were small ones, but still, unimpressed by icebergs? What’s wrong with me? Maybe I need some kind of ice remedy. Perhaps a Gin & Tonic? Wait, all is not lost. When I got back to the room, I happened to look out of the balcony and saw, close by, a large iceberg that we were passing. It was about the size of a three-bedroom house. I was impressed. It was very close by. It was very large. When talking about icebergs, close and large is impressive. I’m relieved.

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